I have been reading a wonderful book entitled “Western Civilization: A Global Comparative Approach: Volume II: Since 1600” (New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2012). I wanted to read an intellectual history, a book that would relate historical events with what was going on in philosophy and other liberal arts when those historical events were happening.
My friend Matthew O’Brien, a professor of history, recommended Campbell’s book, and I am very glad he did. While reading the book the following sentence seemed to leap off the page at me: “Literature and art always have the dual ability to reflect and shape an age at the same time” (p. 42). The sentence expresses what I believe about literature and art and why I decided to write this series of columns.
I know I have been influenced greatly by the literature and art that I have experienced in my life, often but not always for the better. My hope is that each of us can to some extent choose the literature and art that may deeply move us and shape us for the better.
I believe that it is just about impossible to emphasize excessively the power of literature and art to influence how people think about the most important questions. We may not be able to deeply influence the culture in which we live, but I do think we can create a smaller culture for ourselves and some of our friends and acquaintances.
I think this is what many Catholic parishes are trying to do. What I am thinking of is sharing with others information about books, films, plays, and other works of art that we have found have helped us in our attempt at living Christian lives. This is what I often try to do in this column. But it can be done in many ways other than a weekly column in the Catholic press. It can be done through clubs and societies that are already in existence. How organized the effort has to be would depend on many factors.
What matters most is that we become convinced that contemporary literature and art are shaping our society for better or worse. Think of the enormous power of contemporary television. Is there some show that we love, and do we tell others about why we think it is special? Is there some show that we think is terrible, and do we tell others why we think it is terrible?
In his beautiful and challenging “Letter to Artists,” St. Pope John Paul states the following:
“Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.”
I think the liberal arts can help us to create our lives as masterpieces. Commenting on God as “agape” or pure self gift, theologian Michael Himes wrote the following in his book “Doing the Truth in Love: Conversations About God, Relationship and Service” (New York: Paulist Press, 1995), 103 pp.
“So grace is everywhere. This claim has very important consequences. Often we speak of the sacred as though it was a quite separate realm from the secular. What I am suggesting is that there is no secular realm, if by ‘secular’ we mean ‘ungraced’ or ‘unrelated’ to the ‘agape’ of God. There may be many aspects of life about which we do not customarily use religious or theological language to talk about our experience, but that does not mean that those realms of experience are ungraced. Every aspect of our being is ultimately connected to the fundamental question of where we stand in the face of the ‘agape’ of God.”
Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, all of creation is potentially sacramental. Whatever opens us to the living, loving presence of God is like a sacrament. Great films and great plays and great novels can do this. Seemingly spontaneously, films, plays, and novels that have powerfully impacted my life are now entering my mind. Some of them seem to have acted indirectly by dramatizing the failure of human beings to relate in a way that is beneficial.
For example, I love Eugene O’Neil’s two plays “Moon for the Misbegotten” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” Both plays powerfully dramatize loves that seem to have failed. Viewing them can break your heart but also can challenge viewers to be more sensitive and loving in their relationships. Both plays brilliantly depict how we can help or hurt those we love. I think viewing these two plays provided moments of grace for me.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.